She saw her family lose its farm, so she became an attorney to advocate for small farmers
Renewal Awards finalist F.A.R.M.S. helps aging farmers and farmers of color keep their small businesses in the family
Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
Jillian Hishaw has dedicated her life to service. As the founder of Family Agriculture Resource Management Services, or F.A.R.M.S., she advocates for small farmers, especially farmers of color in high poverty rural areas. As an attorney specializing in agricultural law, Hishaw uses her expertise to fight for America’s small farmers so they can keep their land and grow their businesses. The loss of her family’s own small farm inspired her to pursue this work.
We asked Hishaw to tell us about her passion for serving this community of small farmers, and how F.A.R.M.S. is expanding to help communities serve families who are food insecure. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. Learn more about F.A.R.M.S. on Instagram, or on Twitter at @FARMS30000, and follow Hishaw at @jillianhishaw.
Tell us what F.A.R.M.S. is currently working on.
Currently, we are busy working on providing legal and technical services to aging small farmers to make sure the family farm is protected from predatory lenders, nursing homes, and other people and entities who want to take advantage of the elders. On a weekly basis, I get calls from farmers who need encouragement because many farmers and landowners are under intense stress.
Who is part of the F.A.R.M.S. community?
We work not only with small farmers of color in high poverty rural areas in the South and Southeast but as the challenges of small farmers have gotten worst our clientele now is small farmers in general. When I first started this work, I primarily worked with black and indigenous farmers because in the black community, nearly 30,000 acres of land ownership is lost annually. It’s why I named our website www.30000acres.org. As the years have progressed and small farmers are constantly being forced out of business and off their land, we now focus on providing services to small farmers across the country.
How did you start your community work?
I started volunteering in different capacities in the late 1990s—whether it was donating clothes to the domestic violence shelter or volunteering in church or with environmental organizations, I knew my career path would always be dedicated to public service. Since finishing my education 12 years ago, every position I have held or created has been at a public service entity. I have to see positive change in my work on the ground and in the field, even if I hire people to do it. Over the past 12 years, I have established programs ranging from green job training for ex-felons to legal services for small farmers. For example, we not only provide legal services within F.A.R.M.S. but we also have a hunger relief program where we have donated over 220,000 lbs. of produce to food banks and hunger relief agencies in our seven-state region, which continues to expand each year. These types of results keep me going, even in times when we are functioning on a pro bono basis. Rural communities are in need of F.A.R.M.S. services and as government funding cuts back, programs like ours become more of a necessity.
What inspired you to do this work?
Due to my own family’s experience in losing our farmland as a result of our elders trusting a dishonest professional, I knew I wanted to go to law school and provide honest services to landowners to prevent the land loss my family suffered.
What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?
Working with an attorney to save a farm that had been in a black family since Post-Reconstruction and to visit the farm and see it thriving with produce and trees gives me joy! We prevent eldercare abuse from predatory lenders; we protect family farms to ensure the land stays in the family; we protect natural resources; we feed people in rural communities from our hunger relief efforts. These are just some of the ways F.A.R.M.S. helps people in our communities.
What do you love about your community?
I love helping the aging farmer find solace in knowing that the land will be passed down and ensuring those feelings of security when they are at the latter stages of life in providing proper estate planning services to the farmer.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
They think they are unforgotten and F.A.R.M.S. is one of the few entities that reminds them they are not forgotten. Rural communities need funding and support just like urban causes but the communities we serve are neglected. F.A.R.M.S. along with other rural nonprofits need support because urban and rural development go hand and hand. Once people start to realize that the dynamic between urban and rural communities want be so divided.
What leaders inspire you?
Shirley Sherrod of the Southwest Georgia Project and Dean Walter Hill, my former dean at Tuskegee University. Their decades of self sacrifice inspires me to continue the work because they suffered under extreme circumstances to advocate for farmers of color in the South.